Monthly Archives: January 2010

Weighing Scientists

The latest (top science journal) Nature has an editorial on the need for better ways to communicate expert uncertainty on key topics like climate change, and a two-pager by Willy Aspinall on “More tractable expert advice“:

Of the many ways of gathering advice from experts, the Cooke method is, in my view, the most effective when data are sparse, unreliable or unobtainable. … Take as an example an elicitation I conducted in 2003, to estimate the strength of the thousands of small, old earth dams in the United Kingdom. Acting as facilitator, I first organized a discussion between a group of selected experts. … The experts were then asked individually to give their own opinion of the time-to-failure in a specific type of dam, once such leakage starts. They answered with both a best estimate and a ‘credible interval’, for which they thought there was only a 10% chance that the true answer was higher or lower. Continue reading "Weighing Scientists" »

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School Is Not Healthy

Better educated folks are healthier, but they would be just as healthy with less school:

There is a strong, positive and well-documented correlation between education and health outcomes. There is much less evidence on the extent to which this correlation reflects the causal effect of education on health – the parameter of interest for policy. … Our approach exploits two changes to British compulsory schooling laws that generated sharp differences in educational attainment among individuals born just months apart. … We confirm that the cohorts just affected by these changes completed significantly more education than slightly older cohorts subject to the old laws. However, we find little evidence that this additional education improved health outcomes or changed health behaviors.

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Believing Your Age

Conan O’Brien’s departing message:

All I ask of you, especially young people … is one thing. Please don’t be cynical,” O’Brien said. “I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.

Why ask this especially of young folks?  After all, among the generations, young folks are the least likely to be cynical, i.e., to generally attribute low untrustworthy motives to others.  And why should the truth of a belief about the world depend on your age anyway?  If low motives are common, that fact is equally true for all age people.

Apparently, we like people to “act their age,” including having age-appropriate beliefs.  Young folks are supposed to be more idealistic, while old folks are more cynical.  Why?

This seems to me well explained by the standard econ concept of lock-in, where the costs of switching rise with the tenure of a relation.  Before you form a relation, you want to project high switching costs, while once you are locked in, you want to project low switching costs.

When you are idealistic about how others will treat you in your relationships, you become more attractive as a relation partner.  This helps you attract better partners.  Later in life, when you are attached to particular others via relations, you are better off being suspicious and cynical, as this gives you a negotiation edge when threatening to leave your partners, and discourages them from exploiting you.

HT Jennifer Ouellett.

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Dissing Citizens

Imagine a “democracy” where citizens could technically vote for anyone, but where authorities strongly recommended particular candidates for each office, and those who voted for others were given extensive psychiatric treatment, out of concern for their welfare, and taken away from their jobs and families, out of concern for the welfare of others.  Technically, this could make sense — maybe there really is always a clear best candidate, and only crazy folks would think otherwise.

But this situation could also easily describe strong repression, and it seems to dis voters by restricting their control.  People like democracy in part because it raises their status, by making them seem in control.  But if so, voter status must fall as that appearance of control is restricted by law — there is an essential tension between democracy and regulation that overrules voter beliefs.

While we have many kinds of regulations supported by many kinds of rationales, one very common rationale is bias, that people make bad choices, bad not just for society as a whole, but bad for each particular choosing person according to their own preferences, holding constant all other decisions.  Such rationales are commonly offered regarding product safety, professional licensing, and financial regulations, and in legal and election procedures.

It may well be that many people do often make such mistakes, and that they are furthermore stubborn enough not to listen to advice telling them about their mistakes.  So it might well require government force to keep folks from hurting themselves via unwise choices.  But there is a real conflict between telling voters they are wise enough to run the government, and using force to keep them from acting on many of their beliefs.

Consider: which voters are in charge of the policies that keep voters from acting on their beliefs – can these two groups of voters really be the same?  Yes, citizens may realize they are error-prone and intend to use government to keep them from making mistakes.  But then voters would only need to be advised by the government of their mistakes, not forced to follow government advice.  And voluntary deals with private orgs could achieve the same outcome.  Yes perhaps a majority of voters tries to keep a minority of voters from their mistakes, but if so why is such force applied to all voters?

This tension becomes especially strong when voters are prevented by force from acting on their political beliefs.  Consider legal limits on which candidates voters may elect to public office, limits on policies candidates may advocate, or limits on advisors voters may hear on candidates and policies.  Such limits should detract from the status of being a voter in control of government – these limits seem to publicly declare that voters cannot be trusted on certain of their beliefs, and that the elites who set and maintain such limits (e.g., court judges) are the rightful higher-status rulers over such foolish lower-status voting rabble.

But what is clear to me may well not be clear to most voters.  Voting is done in an especially thoughtless sort of far mode, where a great many contradictions remain unnoticed.  But with time, this conflict may become more obvious – how then will voters resolve it, by demanding fewer limits on their actions, or by limiting the vote to a smaller subset of less obviously foolish citizens?

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Microecon of Media

Many have expressed concerns that corporations with free speech may “drown out” other voices.  This view seems to vastly misunderstand modern communications media.  For their benefit, and yours, let us then review the basics of modern media.

First, reader/viewer/listeners today can choose among many many sources.  There are hundreds of TV and radio channels, thousands of newspapers, magazines, and journals, and millions of web pages.  Most readers track many of these, and try new ones often. Readers return more to the sources they see as more valuable.  So sources who want to attract and retain readers must make such readers feel they are getting value, relative to reader time, money, and other costs.  Reader values obtained include info, image, status, fun, and morbid curiosity.

Complaints about corporate political speech often give analogies to street corners or bathroom graffiti, places where the loud can literally drown out the quiet.  Early radio was like this too; radio stations with big transmitters could drown out weak stations.  But the vast majority of media today are tunable; if you choose a particular TV station, magazine, or web page, that is the source you will get – there is little chance you’ll accidentally hear a different station.

So today, the main way some sources take readers away from others is by out-competing them — offering readers more net value.  If your message is not eagerly consumed by readers, your complaint should be with how readers estimate value, not with other sources that offer better value according to reader estimates.  You can of course offer meta-messages, to persuade them they are making mistakes in how to estimate value.  But again, if readers also neglect those meta-messages, your primary complaint is with readers, not with other sources.

Now it does seem that many folks are willing to hear ads instead of paying higher cash prices for media access.  To the extent that some such folks have a natural tendency to believe whatever the majority of ads they hear on such topics tell them, such shallow folks are in effect offering to believe whatever the most monetarily-eager advertisers want them to believe.  For such shallow folks, money-wise the loud can indeed drown out the less loud.

But again, your primary complaint here should be about those shallow voters, not the advertisers.  If you believe that some voters care so little about political outcomes that they are willing to sell their political beliefs to the highest advertising bidder, you should believe that such folks have no business voting!  After all, preventing some folks from directly buying political ads may have little net effect – those folks may buy ads indirectly, or find other ways to buy voter beliefs.  The key problem is that some voters care way too little about political outcomes.

If there are only a few such shallow voters, we can probably just ignore this problem.  If many voters are shallow about politics, however, it seems wiser to restrict the voting franchise to folks whose beliefs are less easily distorted.  The opinions of shallow folks who are easily swayed should have almost no additional information value – why let such them make a mess of how we determine policy?

Added 10:20p: Many folks mistakenly assume that distortions from shallow voters stop if corporations are silenced.  But not only would that hinder non-shallow voters from getting info from corporations, the total distortion by shallow voters is not obviously reduced!  Shallow voters who believe whatever side shows the most ads would either be bought by corporations more indirectly, or by other deep pockets more directly.  And the many other kinds of shallow voters, who believe whoever has the funniest ads, or the coolest spokesfolks, or the prettiest candidates, would still cause distortions.

Mechanically, it would be straightforward to limit the franchise by age, income, IQ, education, knowledge test scores, etc.  Yes such changes seem unpopular now, but that’s no excuse for ignoring them.

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Free Hearing, Not Speech

Control is a key status marker; all else equal those who give orders are above those who take orders.  This seems to be the main reason for democracy’s popularity, not that it makes better decisions but that it raises citizen status, by appearing to put citizens in control.

Consider also that we call it “free speech,” not “free hearing.”  The usual rationale for “free speech,” which seems persuasive, is that in the long run we as a society learn more via an open competition for the best ideas, where anyone can try to persuade us as best they can, and listeners are free to choose what to hear.  Yet that concept would best be called “free hearing” – a freedom to hear and evaluate any case presented, based on any criteria you like (including cost).  It is not a right to make others listen to you.

“Free hearing” would apply not just to hearing from adult citizens in good standing, but also to hearing from children, convicts, corporations, robots, foreigners, or demons.  We wouldn’t argue if corporations have a right to speak, but rather if we have a right to hear what corporations have to say.

But in fact we have “free speech,” a right only enjoyed by adult citizens in good standing, a right we jealously guard, wondering if corporations etc. “deserve” it.  This right seems more a status marker, like the right to vote, than a way to promote idea competition — that whole competition story seems more an ex post rationalization than the real cause for our concern.  Which is why support for “free speech” is often paper thin, fluctuating with the status of proposed speakers.

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Food Not Med

Listening to the radio this morning to reporters visiting the epicenter of the Haitian quake, I heard locals complaining that no one had come to help them.  Locals said they need food, water, and shelter; when rains come they will get cold.  The reporters, however, seemed obsessed with noting that locals need medicine.  They also focused on local efforts to dig out and bury their dead.

Given their desperate need for food, water, and shelter, it seems unlikely to me that medicine is such a priority.  Furthermore, experts say, dead bodies are just not a problem:

Corpses do not represent a public health threat. When death is due to the initial impact of the event and not because of disease, dead bodies have not been associated with outbreaks.

I’m not sure to what extent we are seeing a bias in Haitians, in the reporters, or in their US audience.  But surely epicenter Haitians have more important worries than medicine and dead bodies.

Added:  The contrast between the oh so visible US concern and US planes flying around Haiti with loudspeakers warning locals not to try to boat it to the US is quite striking.  Clearly at some level US folks realize they could help Haitians most by letting them immigrate.  If we (thought we) cared less and were instead eager to gain migrant farm workers and household servants, we might end up helping Haitians more.

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So Much Good News

In the US, Med Reform seems dead and the Supreme Court upholds free speech big-time.  World wide, the modal (log) income, i.e., the most common income level world-wide, has increased by a factor of ten in just 40 years!

worldincome2aworldincome2bHT Rob Wiblin.

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My Moldbug Debate

Mencius Moldbug and I did debate futarchy Saturday.  I’m not sure when the vid will be posted; here’s audio (start at 1:30).  Moldbug also has a follow-on 3700 word post; his main complaint is manipulator payola:

Suppose player P stands to make $X from decision D. In our chess example, he might have a side bet, paying $X, that White will open with P-KB4. Therefore, the question is: what will be his expected loss, $Y, from buying enough P-KB4 bets that White opens with P-KB4?  If X is greater than Y, manipulating the market (ie, moving it intentionally) is profitable. …

Professor Hanson … addresses this problem in three ways.  First, he constructs a model in which Y is infinite and X is finite. … Second, he does sociological experiments with undergraduates. He sets up these markets such that Y is greater than X. …  Third, he finds actual markets in which actual manipulations fail. …  None of this goes even a millimeter toward proving what needs to be proved – namely, that in all markets, Y is always greater than X. …

Honestly, I think the greatest difference between my perspective and Professor Hanson’s is just that I have much higher standards. His entire argument proceeds from the position that, since government today is so bad, anything that could be somewhat less bad is worth a look. … Don’t people buy decisions now? Well, gee, they sure do. So there you go.

For me, government safety is like airplane safety. Not only do I want a watertight proof that Y is greater than X, I want two or three parallel and independent proofs. At least one of them will probably turn out to be wrong. Professor Hanson is a professor, and thinks like a professor. I’m an engineer, and think like an engineer.

I am also a student of history. … the European writers of the Victorian era, whose aristocratic governments worked much better than ours, and were thus appalled by government failures which to us seem trivial and not worth mentioning.

In the debate, I suggested we start by trying fire-the-CEO markets, and only gradually rely more on them in CEO decisions as such markets collect good track records.  Moldbug seems to accept wide trading in ordinary stock markets because he doesn’t think any decisions depend on them, but strongly advises against allowing non-employees to trade in fire-the-CEO markets, due to manipulation concerns.  But even a track record showing that firms which followed market advice do better on average than firms that do not would not persuade him.

In fact, Moldbug the “engineer” says no data anyone could collect in the lab or in any organization smaller than a nation would be relevant, and even with nations he doubts we’d see hidden manipulation. Nor does any data collected in the last century test his belief that the best governments are single rulers running city-sized polities with iron fists and complete discretion.  It is not even clear what prior data makes his case – apparently it can’t be summarized in any concise form; you have to just read dozens of books and have a feel for it.

Not only does Moldbug know such iron fists would rule best, allow emigration, not cheat their investors, and never ever accept manipulator payola, he apparently knows this deductively, as a noble philosopher, not like data-addicted corrupt pansy social scientists.  And he has no interest in improvements in the status quo below his philosopher-deduced-best pinnacle.

What more can one say to such a person?

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Real Rationality

Bayesian probability is a great model of rationality that gets lots of important things right, but there are two ways in which its simple version, the one that comes most easily to mind, is extremely misleading.

One way is that it is too easy to assume that all our thoughts are conscious – in fact we are aware of only a tiny fraction of what goes on in our minds, perhaps only one part in a thousand. We have to deal with not only “running on error-prone hardware”, but worse, relying on purposely misleading inputs. Our subconscious often makes coordinated efforts to mislead us on particular topics.

But at least many folks are aware of and try to deal with this; for example, I’ve seen a lot of good related posts on this at Less Wrong lately. There is, however an even bigger way in which the simple Bayesian model is extremely misleading, and I’ve seen no discussion of it at Less Wrong. We may see one part in a thousand of our minds, but that fraction pales by comparison to the fact that we are each only one part in seven billion of living humanity.

Taking this fact seriously requires even bigger changes to how we think about rationality. OK, we don’t need to consider it for topics that only we can influence. But for most interesting important topics, it matters far more what the entire world does than what we personally do. For such topics, rationality consists mainly in the world having and using good systems (academia, news media, wikipedia, prediction markets, etc.) for generating and distributing reliable beliefs on which everyone can act.

When seven billion minds are involved, the overwhelming consideration must be managing a division of labor, so that we don’t each have to redo the same work. Together we must manage systems for deciding who should be heard on what. Given such systems, each of us will make our strongest contributions, by far, by fitting into these systems.

So to promote rationality on interesting important topics, your overwhelming consideration simply must be: on what topics will the world’s systems for deciding who to hear on what listen substantially to you?   Your efforts to ponder and make progress will be largely wasted if you focus on topics where none of the world’s “who to hear on what” systems rate you as someone worth hearing.  You must not only find something worth saying, but also something that will be heard.

Yes, existing who-to-hear systems are far from perfect, but that fact simply does not make it rational for you to work on topics where a better system would approve you, if only such systems existed. Wishes are not horses. It might make sense for you to work on reforming our systems, but even then your best efforts will work through channels where current systems can rate you as a person to hear on that meta topic.

When what matters is how the world acts, not how you act, rationality on your part consists mainly in improving the rationality of the world’s beliefs, as determined by its main systems for deciding who to believe about what.  Just wishing we had other systems, or acting as if we had them, is delusion, not rationality.

From a conversation with Steve Rayhawk.

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